As Climate Science Gets More Dire, Climate Policy Limps Along

The last month has brought some pretty dark news for the climate. But the response in policy circles is even more grim.

The political story today is the same it’s always been. Leaders keep telling us that now is not the right time to deal with climate, pushing action down the road.

According to new data published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change, the world is on track to increase emissions of carbon dioxide by another 2.6 percent in 2012, despite a slow global economy putting a damper on activity. Scientists are now warning that it’s nearly impossible to keep the rise in global temperature to 2° Celsius (3.6°F)— an internationally recognized benchmark for preventing complete catastrophe.

“Unless large and concerted global mitigation efforts are initiated soon, the goal of remaining below 2°C will soon become unachievable,” wrote the authors.

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Just two weeks earlier, the World Bank issued a comprehensive review on the latest climate science. Its findings were even scarier. The Bank, historically known as a staid institution that pushes large fossil fuel plants, was blunt in its assessment: “we’re on track for a 4°C (7.2°F) warmer world marked by extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.”

By comparison, NASA’s James Hansen says that a 2°C world—the upper limit of what countries are trying to maintain in international climate talks —will be a “prescription for disaster.”

We’re on track to double that by the end of the century, perhaps by as early as 2060.

But the science has been met with a decidedly underwhelming response in the policy realm. Fatih Birol, the renowned chief economist of the International Energy Agency, lamented last week while visiting Washington that there is “no momentum” for any significant agreement internationally or in the U.S. on climate.

On the world stage, the final week of talks are underway in one of the world’s most carbon-intensive cities, Doha, Qatar. Expectations for the outcome are extremely low.

Rich countries are attempting to salvage the Kyoto Protocol, the only legally binding treaty for reducing emissions. Meanwhile, the Americans—who are not bound by Kyoto—are in early negotiations with the Chinese and the Indians on a possible binding treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions after 2015.

While there are often many details that get missed in the coverage of the climate talks, almost everyone agrees on the end result of this year’s talks: negotiators are going to leave Doha still debating an international framework for years to come; meanwhile, heat-trapping gases are spewed into the atmosphere at record rates, making it more difficult and more expensive to avoid catastrophic warming. IEA’s Birol believes we won’t get a treaty until 2020.

One colleague on the ground in Doha said it was “the slowest COP I’ve ever seen.” The Economist magazine called it the “theater of the absurd.”

Unsurprisingly, the disconnect is still just as bad in Washington.

Last month, environmentalists and climate advocates enjoyed a moment of celebration after Barack Obama won the presidential election and kept his office in the White House. The excitement was short-lived.

“We want our children to live in an America…that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet,” said Obama in his acceptance speech on the night of the election.

With climate-friendly candidates supported by green groups all winning their races, a bi-partisan policy discussion around a carbon tax taking root in Washington, and attention to climate change growing after Superstorm Sandy, the factors for action on climate looked like they were coming together.

But then the Obama Administration made its intentions clear shortly after the election: “We would never propose a carbon tax and have no intention of proposing one,” said White House Spokesman Jay Carney.

Although many experts believed that a carbon tax wouldn’t ultimately be considered during this round of fiscal discussions, the White House’s response killed any lingering enthusiasm in Washington policy circles.

The political story today is the same it’s always been. Leaders keep telling us that now is not the right time to deal with climate, pushing action down the road.

But there’s one difference today: the impacts are no longer years away; we are truly hitting the tipping point that scientists have warned us about for decades. Any more long delays in action will mean locking ourselves into high levels of warming and make emissions reductions far more expensive.

So while all eyes are turned to looming fiscal cliff, we should consider the far bigger drop-off we’re walking toward: the climate cliff.

If President Obama put the weight of the White House behind a carbon tax, would you support it? Tell us in the COMMENTS below.

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Stephen Lacey is currently Deputy Editor of Climate Progress, a leading climate and energy blog run by the Center for American Progress. He blogs daily on clean energy policy, technologies, and finance. Lacey was previously produced the Inside Renewable Energy podcast, a weekly audio news program that won a 2010 Neal Award. He received his B.A. in journalism from Franklin Pierce University